Tailpipes or Smokestacks?

Coal-fired power plant Since the holiday season is, after all, a mythical time in its own right, Plug In America decided to address plug-in vehicle mythology and publish its own “Top 12 Plug-in Electric Vehicle Myths” just in time to celebrate Christmas and ring in the New Year. See the complete list of myths on Plug In America’s homepage, Jim Motavalli’s blog or USA Today.

Most plug-in electric vehicle drivers have wrestled with some or all of those 12 pervasive myths when interacting with a curious but ill-informed public. My all-time “favorite” myth is:

Myth # 3: “EVs just replace the tailpipe with a smokestack” — also vicariously known as “the long tailpipe theory” — referring to the notion that electric cars ultimately derive their power from dark, dirty, dastardly coal. This idea assumes that getting significant numbers of plug-in cars on American roads would therefore be worse than the current scenario of powering our transportation sector with petroleum.

While it’s true that 52% of American-generated kilowatts are born in a coal-fired power plant, that number falls to about 20% in cutting-edge, energy-sparing California. However, it remains a renewable energy activist’s dream to actually witness the golden state’s transition from using any out-of state imported coal and instead replacing those ill-gotten electrons with electricity sourced from wind, sun, small hydro, geothermal or wave action — all of which can be used to power plug-in vehicles making them the ultimate clean, multi-fuel automobiles.

And speaking of myths, even if somewhere in the northern hemisphere there lurks a mythical electric vehicle that is somehow 100% coal powered (impossible since electric grids use a mix of sources like natural gas and hydropower) that car would STILL be more energy efficient and less polluting than a comparable gas car. Why? Over 80 percent of an all-electric vehicle’s stored energy is applied to forward momentum. Contrast that sort of astonishing efficiency to your average internal combustion car in which only 18 to 32 percent of total energy produced by the engine actually moves the car. Energy is wastefully lost to heat, friction and the vibration of hundreds of moving parts involved in the combustion process. That energy loss translates directly to needless and almost incalculable tailpipe pollution.

Tailpipe emissions Moving pollution away from population centers and millions of in-your-face freeway tailpipes to centralized, emission-controlled power plants is a good thing too. The really good news is that slowly and incrementally the grid is getting cleaner and greener over time. The bad news? One of the biggest industrial uses of electricity from any source in California is ironically the extraction and refinement of oil.

Posted by Linda Nicholes

Photos courtesy of Triple Pundit and Autos Canada

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